Controversy persists in England over the best way to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis (TB). According to Defra, approximately 28,000 cattle were slaughtered in 2012 for purposes of TB control, and it may cost up to £1 billion to control the disease over the next decade.
Mycobacterium bovis may be transmitted from wildlife, including badgers, to cattle, and several schemes have been proposed that aim to curb the rate of these transmissions.
In 2012, the government announced a pilot badger cull in two areas in England. This gained large amounts of media attention and became a highly controversial topic, with outspoken arguments voiced both for and against culling.
A proposed alternative to culling is vaccination of a critical mass of badgers using a strain of the Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine, and this approach was adopted in 2011 by the National Trust (NT) on the Killerton Estate in Devon.
A paper recently published in Veterinary Record aimed to find out about attitudes towards badger vaccination among farmers on the Killerton Estate and, incidentally, to assess their views of other bovine TB control measures.
Of the 18 farm tenants on the 2000 ha estate, 14 agreed to take part in the study. All of the farmers included in the study owned cattle and all had been affected at some point by bovine TB. All participants were interviewed, and they were asked questions about their attitude towards TB control measures, the impact of TB, where they sourced information about TB and the ways that the NT had handled TB control. The interview transcripts were then analysed for recurring themes. The results are summarised below:
- All respondents reported both significant financial and personal costs due to bovine TB, including additional workload, loss of milk sales, stress and worry.
- Asked whether vaccination of badgers would be effective in controlling TB in cattle, two of the 14 participants said no, two were unsure and the remaining 10 were positive. However, many of the positive responses were conditional, for example, on how many badgers it would be possible to vaccinate. The authors note that the overall attitude towards vaccination was ‘one of tolerance, rather than optimism’.
- Half of the farmers interviewed felt that there was a positive advantage to being involved in the NT’s vaccination scheme and only one thought that it may be a disadvantage. The majority of farmers were supportive of the NT’s decision to pursue the vaccination trial.
- There was general agreement that the vaccination of cattle would be a good solution to the problem, but there was an awareness that a viable vaccine would take time to develop and that this would not be a feasible option for some time.
- Half of the interviewees thought that culling badgers would be more effective than vaccination, two were against Defra’s culling proposals, and the other five gave no clear opinion.
- Seven of the respondents cited gassing and destruction of badger sets as a more effective method of controlling TB than vaccination.
The authors conclude that the study was conducted at a time when there was vigorous debate surrounding control of bovine TB and that the potential impact of this study upon policy will depend heavily upon how successful the Killerton vaccination trial is. There are two more vaccination phases in the trial in 2013 and 2014 and the farmers will be interviewed again after the final phase to assess whether their attitudes have changed.
The authors also note that the study highlights some important issues that may be relevant for the formulation of policy. First, the views of famers in the study tended to be more nuanced than the widespread media coverage has suggested, and while they were for bovine TB control in general, they were also willing to take into account the potential social and environmental impacts of control measures. Furthermore, the authors state that the attitude of the farmers toward vaccination is one of ‘resigned acceptance’ – they don’t believe that vaccination will be effective on its own, but they are glad that something is being done. Finally, some respondents stated that they would prefer a combination of effective vaccination and culling programmes in order to reduce the population sufficiently that vaccination would be effective.
Matt Lobley, one of the study authors, states:
“When the National Trust announced plans to undertake a badger vaccination experiment on its Killerton estate we were pleased to have the opportunity to undertake in-depth face-to-face interviews with the majority of the tenants. Bovine TB can have a debilitating impact on a farm and it has become such a highly politicised issue that opinions and options are often presented in a highly polarised manner. Talking to farmers under conditions of strict anonymity revealed a greater diversity of attitudes towards the control of bovine TB. Like farmers elsewhere, the Killerton tenants have been living with TB or the threat of TB for years and there was general appreciation that at least something was being done. On the other hand, expectations were low and there was a feeling that the badger population had been allowed to ‘get out of hand’, which meant some questioned the efficacy of vaccination alone. Even though our research was based on a small sample it is important that policymakers recognise that farmers attitudes are more nuanced than the public debate over TB often suggests.”